The Twin Paradox of Denuclearisation Diplomacy with North Korea

June 12 marked the first anniversary of the Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, and the period thereafter has seen some suggest preparations are afoot for a third summit. Kim Jong-un sent a letter to Trump to mark the occasion, Trump declared it to be “beautiful,” and KCNA cited Kim saying that the Chairman will “seriously contemplate” Trump’s reply given its “interesting contents.” That reply had some underlined passages, it is not clear whose, but they appear to be Trump’s. One report has suggested, from The Japan Times, that North Korea is dangling the prospect of shutting five uranium enrichment plants, two we know of and three we do not (assuming there’s five), in return for unspecified concessions. That report is not confirmed and is based on remarks by a North Korean diplomatic defector residing in the United States.

We have also seen President Xi Jinping of China make an official state and party visit to North Korea, the fifth Kim-Xi summit. These summits have come before and after top level US and North Korea meetings. Furthermore, President Trump is due to arrive in South Korea and coming along for the ride is the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun. All of this has led to speculation regarding the possibility of a third summit meeting between Kim and Trump. This activity comes as the US is engaged in an escalatory process in the Persian Gulf with Iran. It is possible that Washington wants to keep the Korean front quiet whilst it swings its force to the Iranian front. Ribbentrop and Molotov knew how that works.

We shall have to wait and see, although it is better for us to influence developments than wait upon them. One thing we certainly can see is evidence that North Korea continues to work on its strategic nuclear programmes in the absence of integrated all system testing of them (i.e. nuclear tests and flight tests of long range missiles), and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency has reaffirmed an assessment that North Korea is not ready to disarm (the expression “denuclearise” was used by Lt General Ashley, which strictly speaking is not true in this context).

You might want to argue that there has hitherto obtained a sort of “twin paradox” at play regarding the denuclearisation talks between Washington and Pyongyang. These are not two discrete paradoxes, rather two deeply interconnected ones. I call them paradoxes to the extent that they confound our understanding of what has been happening since Singapore. The first regards the denuclearisation talks themselves, the second concerns what those talks tell us about patterns of dependency in Northeast Asia.

The Paradox of Denuclearisation

Let us start with the first. What have the denuclearisation talks achieved? President Trump likes to point to the absence of North Korean testing as a key achievement, he stated prior to the Hanoi summit that this was the most important thing for him. Yet that is not the result of Singapore. North Korea announced its decision to suspend testing of nuclear weapons and long range missiles at an April 2018 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. That is, after the process of North-South rapprochement kicked off following Kim’s January 1,2018 new year address and before the June 12 summit at Singapore. For its part Pyongyang appears to have achieved little, certainly it has achieved little by way of sanctions relief. It is said that the parties have laboured over competing understandings of the concept “denuclearisation,” with Pyongyang adhering to a gradual step-by-step process short of disarmament and Washington adhering to complete and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s strategic weapons programmes.

One could argue, however, that for both parties the talks weren’t about nuclear weapons. For North Korea, it appears, the Singapore process came about unexpectedly and was a means of providing space for its interlocutor in Seoul, the liberal government of Moon Jae-in, the necessary political space to engage in détente. It is not possible for Seoul to engage in détente with the North without appearing to address the concerns of Washington, something both Seoul and Pyongyang understood. So long as the denuclearisation talks continued Moon and Kim went from summit to summit. But now that they have stalled, the process of détente too has stalled. That shows you their importance for that process. Secondly, the denuclearisation talks were a means for Pyongyang to leverage its strategic capabilities to improve relations with the US and extract economic, diplomatic, and security concessions from Washington. Put all that together and you get a picture suggesting that for Pyongyang the denuclearisation talks had little to do with the nuclear question.

For the United States, it appears, the matter of nuclear weapons was front and centre. Discourse on North Korea, as on nuclear proliferation more broadly since the 1990-1991 Gulf War, has been dominated by the prospect of an irrational actor acquiring the ability to launch nuclear strikes against US forces, US allies, and the US homeland. The denuclearisation talks, on the surface, appear to be devoted to addressing that threat. They have done nothing toward that end, and not just because of North Korean attitudes and actions. Could we argue, then, that for Washington the denuclearisation talks weren’t about the nuclear dimension. Rather, Singapore arose, in part (the external part), from a concern that Washington would be isolated from developments in the Korean peninsula should it have stuck to the traditional stance of the hawks of no high level negotiations until Pyongyang unilaterally concedes to US demands. In that sense, Washington has achieved much from the denuclearisation talks. Instead of being isolated from one of the world’s most promising political developments, the United States has shown itself to be “the indispensable nation” without which nothing of consequence in this world can happen. The denuclearisation talks have led to a situation whereby peace on the Korean peninsula needs to go through Washington first, and in scuttling the denuclearisation talks (that’s my reading of Hanoi) Washington has prevented further advances toward North-South rapprochement that challenges its overall strategic vision for Northeast Asia.

On June 12, 2018 most declared Kim to have played Trump. But it appears on June 12, 2019 it is Trump that has played Kim. So, we have our first paradox. Despite word “nuclear” being dropped with abandon over the past year we might come to the paradoxical conclusion that the talks over North Korea’s nuclear programme weren’t about nuclear weapons. The dominant idea is that lack of progress can be attributed to the two sides somehow misundersting what the other regards “denuclearisation” to mean.  After a year of to-and-through that idea is starting to wear thin, or at least it should.

Pity the Nation

What of the second, related, paradox? This would be more centred upon the Korean nation itself. As the superb American historian, Bruce Cumings, has long pointed out the Korean War was, indeed is given it has yet formally ended, first and foremost a Korean affair. But it became intertwined with the Cold War, and so has taken on a significance beyond that of the Korean nation and something subject to the interests and concerns of the great powers. That is how things are for the small nations of the world when they find themselves at the intersection of competing great powers. Both North Korea and South Korea have sought to wean themselves from external dependency. Following emancipation from Japanese imperial rule, Pyongyang has sought this through its own brand of self-reliant “socialist construction” known as Juche, whereas Seoul has sought this through economic modernisation and growth.

The Singapore process seems to have underscored that Korea remains a nation divided and one that remains dependent upon external powers who put their, not Korean, interests first. For Pyongyang one gets the impression, in part, that its strategic nuclear weapons programme was about guaranteeing regime survival by lowering strategic dependence upon China. Yet the failure of the Singapore process, and the consequent continuance of “maximum pressure” economic sanctions, has underscored its material dependence upon China. One gets the impression that continued Chinese support, just enough for the rudiments of survival nothing more mind you, helps keep North Korea afloat. One can see a certain cynical calculation on Beijing’s part here. Support enough for survival keeps Pyongyang dependent, which provides Beijing some leverage with Washington, and enables North Korea’s continued economic exploitation by China. Nothing quite grist’s the mills like cheap labour, even for comrades. That’s a situation not in North Korea’s interest, but it is in China’s as it is enough to prevent regime collapse in Pyongyang without jeopardising China’s position in the world as a responsible great power.

During the Kim-Putin summit earlier this year the President of Russia said something of interest, but quickly passed over by analysts and the media alike. Putin stated that South Korea “suffers from a deficit of sovereignty.” The South cannot boldly pursue rapprochement and détente with the North, despite the lack of progress in the denuclearisation talks which has much to do with US approaches and actions, because despite its economic modernisation and impressive economic growth it remains, perhaps even more so, dependent upon the United States. South Korea has pursued the East Asian development model of export led industrialisation, and that by a political economy characterised by strong links between the state and industrial-corporate conglomerates known, in the South Korean case, as the Chaebol. While it is true that Moon needs to address threats to his flanks domestically, conservative elements in the South remain hostile to diplomacy with the North, it is also true that Washington has a lot of economic leverage over the North and the Chaebol at the centre of the South’s political economy. For example, the prospect of secondary US economic boycotts, especially secondary boycotts against Seoul’s financial system, should South Korea pursue joint economic projects despite lack of progress in the denuclearisation talks, has constituted a most significant roadblock to Seoul’s moving further on détente and rapprochement with the North.

The Singapore process, like the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, has underscored that South Korea, despite its impressive modernisation and economic growth, remains dependent upon the United States. South Korea has a subordinate position in the world capitalist system, how else to interpret Seoul’s not doing what Seoul wants to do?

Despite liberation from Japanese imperialism, a brutal civil war, a drive for industrial self reliance in the North, the North’s balancing between Moscow and Beijing, modernisation in the South, the struggle for democracy in the South, despite all that the Korean nation is where it was at the beginning of its modern history. Divided and dependent upon the great powers. Pity the nation. It is possible to argue that this is because the North and the South, despite their vast differences, share one essential feature in common. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, each in their own way, crushed a nascent Korean revolution centred upon autonomous and democratic peoples’ committees following emancipation from imperial rule. The Korean nation will be the master of its destiny when democracy, in the fullest sense of the term, comes to Korea. That, like the denuclearisation talks, remains a work in progress.

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